THEY look a bit like amoeba. Cars pull up in the pre-dawn gloom and soon there are people merging and dividing, tangling gently to embrace, and separate. There's something tentative in their awkward dance. They seem preoccupied, uncertain of themselves.
Not me. It's my big day today. Freedom. They've kept me inside, shelved, for these past three years. Where it's safe, and neat. And apparently there's never been a best time, a right time, to do this. Never the sense that today is the day, until now. At last.
They've come early to save their freckled faces from the sun. Not that they'll see much of that today. There's a mean easterly slapping the shore, and a weak sun just rising from the horizon hasn't pierced the smudgy clouds yet. It's actually cold for December, so the only other souls on the beach are the leathery old men who pound along the sand and swim laps forever.
It's not the perfect summer day they'd wished for, but time and tide wait for no man. It's now or never, apparently.
The last stragglers arrive, and sensible shoes are discarded for the walk to the water's edge. Choppy waves are breaking unevenly onto the rock shelf, flinging cold spray through thin clothing. There's an argument - there's always an argument - about where it's safest. At least they're consistent I suppose. The same trite phrases are trotted out: "Not safe" this, "too hard" that. These kids like to live life wrapped in cotton wool, and I'm at a bit of a loss to understand it.
But their pinched, early-morning faces are tight with pain, and fear. Not what I was hoping for today. Not here, not now. The tide's on the turn and freedom is the salty tang of the ocean...
When I was a kid, you know, we just about lived down here. We were a ragtag posse of boys daring the daylights out of life. Jumping off the blocks into a storm swell that washed us right across the big baths into the little pool; throwing rocks at toad fish to watch them puff up, scouring rock pools for crabs and urchins, epic pop weed fights, wacko! Then somersaulting off these rocks here, into the waves. Body surfing heart-pounding swells from out the back of the break, one arm down, the other stroking madly as we bounced across the face before being swallowed by white water, then spat out on the sand, breathless and exhilarated.
Sometimes we scared ourselves with our dares. I reckon my first taste of real fear was just over there, where the rails from the old coal tunnel emerged from the cliff. We'd run the gauntlet with the old coffee pot train dragging coal from round at Burwood. We'd wait just inside the entrance, hearts pounding wildly with the approaching rumble of the engine vibrating through our bodies, its warning blast booming through the darkness.
Now! We'd start running beside the train. The bravest kids caught hold of the wagons and rode the train, John Wayne style, all the way up to the road crossing. The drivers would be going crook at us the whole time, but we were outlaws, cheering as we ran along behind. The extra bonus was the lump of stray coal we'd take home proudly to our mothers, who'd box our ears but take the coal anyway.
But we really knew fear when we rowed the surf boat. The thrill of anticipation as we stood in the shallows, wary of the big green sets rolling in, curling, and crumping along the beach before surging up the sand, trying to wrestle the impatient craft from our grip. Waiting for the stroke to call, "Face the fear gents! After this next wave... steady... wait, wait... now!"
Then the searing surge of energy as backs strained against the blades, hauling on the oars to launch the boat up into the face of fast-breaking waves, punching through the crest in a crescendo of spray into... air!
An eternity of free falling, down, down, till we'd smash wood on water. Ooof, your breath would be knocked out of you, but you had to row like the blazes or the next wave would swamp you.
Once you'd cleared the break you were right for a bit, catch your breath for the homeward run. You could feel the power of the swell teasing the boat forward, and easing back as we rowed hard out of the troughs. Then, like a giant javelin we'd be picked up and hurled on to the roaring wave. Now! Oars in, scramble back, lean into the wave as it tossed you, sometimes smashed you to the beach, splintered oars and bloodied, grinning like mad men...
Look, they're moving to the safety of the rock pools near the baths now. They trail along raggedly, miserable and lost in themselves again. The eldest is standing on a partly submerged rock, about to make a speech.
So I seize the moment and give her a nudge.
See this in slow motion: a foot slips, a woman falls face first into the water, a brass urn in a small esky floats out of her grasp on the ebb tide, heading beyond the rocks towards the ocean. There's a frantic scrum of people lunging and diving to rescue the wet woman, and the runaway urn is raised aloft like a trophy. Then they are shrieking and falling into each other, helpless with laughter, snorting and dripping. Finally they are together, holding each other, helping each other.
Breathless and exhilarated.
Grinning like mad men.
The time is right now.
So the urn is opened, and he is released.
Pale ash swirls around their ankles, rests briefly in the sand, and is gone.
Entrants were asked to write a short story inspired by one of four photos. Short-listed stories will be published every day in t he Newcastle Herald until Friday, January 23.